You’d never know that these phrases may not be the best to tell your child. Avoid these 5 things you tell your kids but probably shouldn’t.
We mean well when we talk to our kids. We think we’re doing our job, providing support, and boosting their confidence.
But it turns out, many of the often-said phrases we tell them may actually have the opposite effect and carry negative consequences.
You’d never think so, especially since these phrases seem so innocent. Yet day after day, I still catch myself saying one of them.
5 things you tell your kids but probably shouldn’t
Of course, this doesn’t mean we’re dooming our kids with the way we talk to them, especially when the intent is good. But we can rephrase our point a better way.
Take a look at these 5 things you tell your kids, but probably shouldn’t:
1. “Did you [do a task]?” (knowing he didn’t)
My then-three-year-old emerged from using the potty without any sound of running water. This was a telltale sign that he completely skipped washing his hands, something he knew he was supposed to do.
And yet, I still asked him, “Did you wash your hands?”, knowing full well that he didn’t.
“Um… yeah!” he replied.
And who can blame him for lying? Asking questions we already know the answers to can lead kids to lie as they try to save face.
Instead, we can say, “Can you wash your hands?” or, “Wash your hands, please.”
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2. “You’re so smart/creative/athletic.”
Paying compliments seems like the right way to go. After all, kids get a kick out of praise and a boost of confidence.
But labeling can limit their scope and segment them into certain abilities. The “artistic one” believes she can and should stick to art, while the “athletic one” thinks he gets attention only by excelling in sports.
Labeling kids also makes them feel like worse if they don’t live up to the hype. Telling a child he’s smart makes him believe that his “smartness” is inherent and little to do with effort.
When he’s challenged, he feels terrible for not understanding the material. Or worse, he doesn’t even want to try (for fear of not living up to the title of “smart” any longer).
Instead, focus more on the effort (“You got an A on the test! Looks like all that studying paid off”). He’ll tie his successes to his own efforts, and his failures to the lack of it. “I didn’t do well on the test because I didn’t study enough,” not “…because I’m not smart enough.”
3. “It’s okay” (and its partner, “Don’t cry”)
When our kids feel upset, hurt or sad, the first words out of our mouths are usually “It’s okay” or “Don’t cry.” We want to soothe and help them cope with whatever hurt they’ve just experienced.
Yet at these times, we need to choose our words. Telling them “It’s okay” assumes that everything is okay when, in their eyes, it’s not.
Saying “Don’t cry” also pushes them to rush through their emotions and “be happy already.” This can speak more to our own discomfort at having to deal with their negative emotions. While it’s not healthy for them to be sad all the time, hushing up their cries implies that sadness is taboo.
Instead, comfort your child in other ways. Assure him that you’re there, hold him, or give him the space he needs. After all, it’s rarely up to us to determine when it is okay, and when it’s time to stop crying.
Another option besides saying “It’s okay” is to point to the future. Say, “It’ll be okay…” or “We’ll figure it out…” This respects his current emotions while reminding him that, down the line, he’ll feel better.
4. “Good job!”
This is the phrase I struggle with the most. I’m constantly slipping “Good job!” if I’m not conscious of it. So what’s the big deal with saying “good job”?
First, saying “good job” often can lead kids to rely too much on our opinions to feel good about themselves. The reward is in the attention they get, not in the task itself. They might even lose interest in the activity if we don’t offer praise often enough.
And saying “good job” places judgment.We automatically offer what we think even when it’s not asked. Because ideally, they should enjoy the activity even if no one was around to offer praise.
Thankfully, there’s still a way to praise and support your child without making your opinion the main point. How? Offer descriptive praise. Simply describe what’s going on. For instance, say, “It looks like you’re enjoying your toy,” or “You did it!”
5. “Say ‘sorry'”
Here’s another one that slips past my mouth more than it should, usually when I’m trying to discipline my kids on something they shouldn’t have done. We think it’s the right thing to do so they acknowledge their errors.
Yet how genuine are apologies when they’re forced?
Not only are these words empty, but telling kids to say sorry might make them feel even more shamed. Or worse, a forced apology slaps an immediate resolution to the conflict. We’re not able to learn why they got frustrated in the first place, or what they could have done instead.
This doesn’t mean they’re off the hook or get away with everything. But we’re better off acknowledging the reason that prompted them to misbehave in the first place. “You seem tired,” would show empathy on our part and point to a reason they acted up.
Then we can acknowledge other people’s feelings and encourage empathy on their part. “When you yelled, your brother got scared and upset.” We can even offer suggestions on what they can do instead. “Can you try kissing his head? Maybe that will make him feel better.”
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t teach them to say “sorry”—it just shouldn’t be forced. For instance, we can say, “He looks upset. You can tell him you’re sorry to make him feel better.”
And reminding them to say “sorry” is appropriate for accidents like bumping into someone. It’s like reminding them to say “please” and “thank you” as part of their manners.
Whew! Talk about the impact of the different ways we communicate with our kids.
One thing I learned about parenting is how much our words can make a difference. Phrasing something in a playful way stops a lot of nagging. Being direct avoids confrontation. And praising for effort and not innate traits build grit and perseverance.
We don’t need to perfect everything we say (nor should we even try to). But the more aware we are of what we say, the more effective and encouraging communicating with our kids can be.
Get more tips:
- Can Praise Be Harmful and Impede Your Child’s Potential?
- What to Do when You Tell Your Kids “No” Too Often
- 4 Things You Definitely Shouldn’t Say about Other People’s Children
- Tell Your Kids You Love Them, Even when It’s Hard To
- 5 Maya Angelou Quotes that Apply to Parenthood
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